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In 2004, I read the 30-page Internet précis version of this book, annotating it heavily as I read and interacted with the author. I later bought the book and read more deeply these stimulating thoughts of Terrance Tiessen. This is an extremely thoughtful and excruciatingly detailed discussion of the state of people in cultures who have not heard the specific message of the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Tiessen evaluates everyone who has written anything on the topic. He proceeds with each, systematically going through every perspective, objection or proposal on each aspect of the question he considers.
This scholar explores every aspect of God's relationship to his human creation. He likewise affirms that God can directly relate to individuals in every human society in such a way as to offer them a personal relationship with himself. Tiessen explains how a sovereign God is both free and able to relate directly to any culture, unlimited by the historical, cultural or linguistic limitations of a specific human tradition such as the Hebrew covenant.
He lays out a detailed argument of how the same offer of salvation Christians know in Jesus is also made available in some way in every human culture, even if they do not have access to the specific information of the Judeo-Christian historical tradition. He affirms that God has truly given every individual a valid invitation to enter into a relationship with him.
Tiessen includes a proposal of how the strict Calvinist (full determinist) view of election and predestination by God can accommodate the proposal that God has offered salvation to every individual in every cultural setting. As most Calvinists, Tiessen is very concerned to defend the integrity of God as well as his sovereignty.
Goodness of God
He expends great effort to justify God's sovereign choice while also clarifying God's offer of grace to every individual, whatever the formal knowledge or social situation. He affirms that God has truly provided every individual an adequate opportunity to hear and understand the core meaning of God's call to himself in repentance and faith, while allowing for the rejection of so many. The essence of the call to salvation and the human response in faith is the same in any culture, even if the words and specific information is not in the specific terms of Jesus as the Jewish Messiah.
Very important to Tiessen is what has traditionally been referred to as the "means of grace" – how a person actually hears the message and receives an opportunity to accept or reject the Divine invitation. Tiessen believes and lays out in extensive detail his beliefs that in every culture God has a way of working with every individual to present an adequate understanding of himself, to allow for an adequate opportunity to "be saved."
This is based on the scriptural foundation of the relational, covenantal concept of salvation (commonly ignored or misunderstood in today's western individualism). I found his logic and analysis superb and his proposals acceptable on most fronts.
I found, however, that I got very frustrated with the nit-picking logic of his attempts to defend traditional Calvinism. He indeed developed levels of probability and causality that are not commonly dealt with, and his reformulations seem to overcome several traditional criticisms of Calvinism. His proposal likely seems hopeful and welcome to Calvinists.
This new logical defense of an ultimate deterministic view of the final response of individuals to God's call irons out a few of the difficulties facing a reconciliation of the obvious free offer of reconciliation to God to every person and nation with the few statements that attribute to God a free and absolute sovereignty in all things, including the grace granted for forgiveness of sins and salvation-reconciliation to him.
I found the same problem in the final level of deep determinism I find with all deterministic forms of thought. No matter how thin you slice it, in the end, it skews the intent and meaning of the biblical declarations from the dynamic, experiential and relationship cultural worldview of the east into a western, philosophical worldview that required clear and stratified categories of logic and metaphysical structure.
It is just inadequate to limit the statements of the biblical writers to a foreign set of logical and metaphysical categories that come from a whole different worldview centuries later. Calvinists just can't seem to handle the paradox this dynamic mindset causes in the strict Greek philosophical approach so beloved of even the modern Western mind. They just can't seem to leave it unresolved.
Tiessen's excellent detailing of logical possibilities in the metaphysic of election (predestination) finally still came down to one declaration that contradicted another, when he says that there is a full and free opportunity to hear and understand. But in the final analysis, the Lord's prior free choice not to choose this person prevents the individual from making the final response, in whatever manner or form the person heard the call. The linear, static logic of western philosophy behind Calvinism is incompatible with the dynamic, relational logic of the biblical cultural worldview.
I enjoy the dynamic approach of eastern thought, which is very similar to the African worldview of dynamic relational realities I have lived with all of my adult life. Even in the Western forms of thought, there are better ways to accommodate the apparent contradictions. An obvious one that has been productively used for over a century is called Process Theology. Another valiant attempt now under attack is Open Theism. Retrenched thinkers can't give up their Greek way of thinking to allow a real biblical culture to speak to them.
I recommend this book to anyone serious about probing the problems and possibilities in Christian doctrine for the salvation of peoples who have not heard the overt message of the gospel as understood by the western Christian faith. Tiessen has done more than anyone I have read on this topic, and I feel he has admirably succeeded, despite the deep problem I mention in this one section attempting to accommodate traditional legalistic Calvinistic theology.
The bonus is that when you read Tiessen's book, you will be exposed to virtually every other contribution on this topic, from every other perspective, now and through history! An amazing work to have come from one man's mind and pen!
See related reviews and articles on this site:
The Exclusively Inclusive Gospel
A Simple Theology of Religions
What about the people who were born before Christ?
When They Haven't Heard
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First reviewed on Amazon 21 August 2006
Expanded version posted on Thoughts and Resources 9 September 2006
Rewritten 29 April 2009
Copyright © 2006, 2009 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Other rights reserved.